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[infowar.de] WPO 21.10.03 Curtains Ordered For Media Coverage Of Returning Coffins
October 21, 2003
White House Notebook
Curtains Ordered For Media Coverage Of Returning Coffins
By Dana Milbank
Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have worried that their
military actions would lose support once the public glimpsed the remains
of U.S. soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped caskets.
To this problem, the Bush administration has found a simple solution: It
has ended the public dissemination of such images by banning news
coverage and photography of dead soldiers' homecomings on all military
In March, on the eve of the Iraq war, a directive arrived from the
Pentagon at U.S. military bases. "There will be no arrival ceremonies
for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or
departing from Ramstein [Germany] airbase or Dover [Del.] base, to
include interim stops," the Defense Department said, referring to the
major ports for the returning remains.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the military-wide policy actually dates from
about November 2000 -- the last days of the Clinton administration --
but it apparently went unheeded and unenforced, as images of caskets
returning from the Afghanistan war appeared on television broadcasts and
in newspapers until early this year. Though Dover Air Force Base, which
has the military's largest mortuary, has had restrictions for 12 years,
others "may not have been familiar with the policy," the spokeswoman
said. This year, "we've really tried to enforce it."
President Bush's opponents say he is trying to keep the spotlight off
the fatalities in Iraq. "This administration manipulates information and
takes great care to manage events, and sometimes that goes too far,"
said Joe Lockhart, who as White House press secretary joined President
Bill Clinton at several ceremonies for returning remains. "For them to
sit there and make a political decision because this hurts them
politically -- I'm outraged."
Pentagon officials deny that. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they
said the policy covering the entire military followed a victory over a
civil liberties court challenge to the restrictions at Dover and
relieves all bases of the difficult logistics of assembling family
members and deciding which troops should get which types of ceremonies.
One official said only individual graveside services, open to cameras at
the discretion of relatives, give "the full context" of a soldier's
sacrifice. "To do it at several stops along the way doesn't tell the
full story and isn't representative," the official said.
A White House spokesman said Bush has not attended any memorials or
funerals for soldiers killed in action during his presidency as his
predecessors had done, although he has met with families of fallen
soldiers and has marked the loss of soldiers in Memorial Day and Sept.
11, 2001, remembrances.
The Pentagon has previously acknowledged the effect on public opinion of
the grim tableau of caskets being carried from transport planes to
hangars or hearses. In 1999, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of
Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, said a decision to use military force
is based in part on whether it will pass "the Dover test," as the public
reacts to fatalities.
Ceremonies for arriving coffins, not routine during the Vietnam War,
became increasingly common and elaborate later. After U.S. soldiers fell
in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Kenya, Afghanistan and
elsewhere, the military often invited in cameras for elaborate
ceremonies for the returning remains, at Andrews Air Force Base, Dover,
Ramstein and elsewhere -- sometimes with the president attending.
President Jimmy Carter attended ceremonies for troops killed in
Pakistan, Egypt and the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran. President
Ronald Reagan participated in many memorable ceremonies, including a
service at Camp Lejeune in 1983 for 241 Marines killed in Beirut. Among
several events at military bases, he went to Andrews in 1985 to pin
Purple Hearts to the caskets of marines killed in San Salvador, and, at
Mayport Naval Station in Florida in 1987, he eulogized those killed
aboard the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf.
During President George H.W. Bush's term, there were ceremonies at Dover
and Andrews for Americans killed in Panama, Lebanon and aboard the USS
But in early 1991, at the time of the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon
said there would be no more media coverage of coffins returning to
Dover, the main arrival point; a year earlier, Bush was angered when
television networks showed him giving a news briefing on a split screen
with caskets arriving.
But the photos of coffins arriving at Andrews and elsewhere continued to
appear through the Clinton administration. In 1996, Dover made an
exception to allow filming of Clinton's visit to welcome the 33 caskets
with remains from Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's plane crash. In
1998, Clinton went to Andrews to see the coffins of Americans killed in
the terrorist bombing in Nairobi. Dover also allowed public distribution
of photos of the homecoming caskets after the terrorist attack on the
USS Cole in 2000.
The photos of coffins continued for the first two years of the current
Bush administration, from Ramstein and other bases. Then, on the eve of
the Iraq invasion, word came from the Pentagon that other bases were to
adopt Dover's policy of making the arrival ceremonies off limits.
"Whenever we go into a conflict, there's a certain amount of guidance
that comes down the pike," said Lt. Olivia Nelson, a spokeswoman for
Dover. "It's a consistent policy across the board. Where it used to
apply only to Dover, they've now made it very clear it applies to
HSFK Hessische Stiftung für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung
PRIF Peace Research Institute Frankfurt
Leimenrode 29 60322 Frankfurt a/M Germany
Tel +49 (0)69 9591 0422 Fax +49 (0)69 5584 81
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